By definition, all vegetable oils come from plant sources, including those made from seeds, nuts or fruits; canola is one among many types of vegetable oils. By contrast, butter, lard and suet are defined as animal fats. That said, all the vegetable oils have different flavors and characteristics, making them more or less suited to different types of dishes and different cooking methods. All the vegetable oils, including canola, substitute for one another on a 1-for-1 basis except when you cook with high heat.
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Types of Vegetable Oils
Vegetable oils differ from one country to another. Olive oil appears frequently in Italy and Spain because olive trees grow there in abundance, while corn oil and soybean oil are common American vegetable oils for similar reasons. Canola oil, made from seeds of the rapeseed plant, is widely used in Canada, where the plant grows. Canadian manufacturers changed the oil's name to canola oil, a blend of Canada and oil, when they modified the rapeseed plant through crossbreeding in the 1970s.
Flavors of Oils
Vegetable oils take their flavors from the plants they're made from and the method of processing. Extra-virgin olive oil, for example, comes from the first press of the olives and tastes stronger than light olive oil, which goes through a filtration process. Some nut oils, made by simply pressing the nuts, have very strong flavors. Canola oil comes in a strongly flavored, cold pressed version, where the seeds are not heated, as well as in the more common, hot pressed variety, with a blander, neutral taste.
Cooking With Oils
The higher a vegetable oil's smoke point, the less it will burn or smoke in a hot pan. Peanut, safflower and soybean oils, with smoke points of 450 degrees Fahrenheit, work well for deep-frying for this reason, while olive oil, with a smoke point of 375 F, doesn't. Canola oil, with a smoke point of 435 F, falls into the high end of the range and is a good all-purpose choice for pan-frying or stir-frying over high heat.
Choosing Among Oils
With its low cost, mild flavor and fairly high smoke point, canola oil is more versatile for cooking than some other more expensive oils, such as olive oil; or oils with strong flavors, such as nut oils or sesame seed oil. Like corn oil or safflower oil, canola oil stays liquid in the refrigerator, a characteristic that differentiates it from olive oil, which solidifies. Canola oil is second to olive oil in having a high level of monounsaturated fats and a low level of saturated fat.